Modi’s “Politico-Religious” Card & Indian Secularism at Stake? 

modi ayodhya

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s team is certainly going overboard on each and every front so that the mega-mega politico-religious drama of his inaugurating the grand Hindu temple at Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh on January 22 helps him electorally, socially as well as diplomatically. He has described this as realization of his long-lasting dream. As obvious, his prime objective is not simply to return to power in parliamentary polls scheduled later this year but also ensure a crushing defeat of his rivals. Usage of a grand religious card reaching out to Hindu votes in a country where their population is around 80% is a part of this strategy. Of course, religious “credibility” of this move is being questioned in certain political as well as religious circles. The four religious leaders, known as Shankacharyas – “Gurus” of four Hindu monasteries – have reportedly decided not to attend the inauguration ceremony of the Ram-temple as they are against mixing of religion with politics. Their decision probably carries little importance for Modi and his supporters.  

What apparently is being looked forward to by Modi is that the grand celebrities extended invitation do participate. Some prominent movie actors from Bollywood, billionaire industrialists, a few politicians, including key opposition leaders and cricket-stars are among the ones included in around 7,000 invitees for the grand event. What does this suggest? Indirectly, this probably is a manner of Modi letting India and rest of the world know about his “popularity” and the “importance” given by celebrities to this invite. The fact that the invite has been rejected by Hindu spiritual leaders and several key opposition leaders doesn’t bear political significance for Modi in this context. One may say, attendance of the mega-show should not be linked with political support of Modi. Quite a few may force themselves to display their presence on the occasion to avoid displeasing him and not face his anger in other ways. This may be a harsh political reality which cannot be ignored.  

Give a thought, presence of numerous celebrities at the temple’s inauguration ceremony certainly bears significance in giving a big boost to quite a few political egos, noses as well as inflating chests with a new sense of pride. These apparently matter a lot for Modi, his political team, supporters and also his fans who have no qualms about labelling themselves as Modi-bhakts (Modi-devotees), even “blind-devotees.” It wouldn’t be surprising, if these Modi-devotees’ craze for the Indian premier witnesses a great jump because of this mega-show. And this is probably what Modi’s team is targeting for. A larger than life show with all elements of a mega-movie and Modi taking the center-stage as the lead hero. The other invitees, including celebrities from other walks of life, would be playing part of supporting actors.  

A reflection on nature of Modi’s past political shows indicate that there is nothing surprising about this. His moves, tacitly directed towards enhancing his political image, included Bollywood celebrities such as Amitabh Bachchan and Salman Khan. Ahead of Modi actually joining national politics (in 2014), he was chief minister of Gujarat. Bollywood super star, Bachchan had been roped in to promote tourist campaign of Gujarat as the state tourism’s brand ambassador in 2012.  On January 14, 2014, Salman spent afternoon with Modi at the kite-flying festival in Ahmedabad in Gujarat and show gained a lot of media coverage. Of course, Modi no longer needs to fall back on their support for media coverage or for political gains. But his quest for playing the role of a larger than life super-hero cannot be missed in the manner in which this mega politico-religious show has been planned.  

Certain opposition leaders as well as religious gurus have not failed to decipher this political message. This probably also explains their refusal to attend the temple’s inauguration ceremony. Modi’s key strategy, as suggested, is to propagate a grand image of himself, playing a major role in this “politico-religious” ceremony. He clearly expects “importance” of all invitees and others present there to be overshadowed by his own. Of course, usage of this card may throw his “devotees” into an ecstatic frenzy. But the million dollar question is whether this will really increase electoral support for him?  

Religious-card bordering on communalism has been used by right-winged, extremist parties for decades. Despite population of minorities, including Muslims, Christians and Sikhs, being no match for them, religious-agenda has failed to secure Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) even 50% of votes. Yet with Modi as Prime Minister, BJP-led alliance has succeeded to be in power because of opposition parties’ failure to stand strongly against it on a united platform.  

Notwithstanding all the “religious-hype” about the grand Ayodhya-show, prospects of it having any major impact on people’s religious feelings may be viewed as limited. Whether they witness the religious ceremonies as invitees or virtually, once the show is over, they will return to their normal routines. Yes, for days, perhaps weeks, the show will dominate media and Modi as well as his supporters will probably not cease talking about its “historical” significance and so forth. It shall remain etched for Modi, BJP and his fans as an experience that cannot be ever forgotten. Modi has reportedly also described himself as being “chosen” by Gods to “represent” all Indians at this grand religious exercise, which specifically is “Pran Prathistha,” that is installation of key Hindu deity’s idol, referred to as “Lord Rama” or “Ram-Lalla” at the Ram temple in Ayodhya.   

True, BJP’s key political journey began communally, marked by destruction of Babri Mosque in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992 to construct the Ram temple there. The phase was also accompanied by nation-wide riots targeting Muslims. But this communal card never let BJP head the national government. The party was forced to put it on the backburner to head a coalition government with Atal Behari Vajpayee as Prime Minister (1999-2004). The same party faced defeat following communal riots in Gujarat in 2002 with reins of power being taken over by Congress-led alliance for two terms till 2014. Campaign dominated by usage of secular mask together with anti-Congress propaganda helped Modi win 2014 parliamentary polls but with less than 40% votes. Victory in 2019 was not marked by electoral gains being much different. At present, the politico-religious show just ahead of parliamentary polls adds strength to certain critics’ view about Modi’s team being compelled to use this card for primarily electoral reasons.   

What stands out is that so far neither religious propaganda nor communal politicking has helped any party head the Indian national government. The primary reason for this rests in the strength of Indian secularism. Against this backdrop, the grand “politico-religious” ceremony at Ayodhya will certainly elevate status of Modi –much larger than that of a Bollywood superstar- among his fans/devotees and be in limelight in India as well as other parts of world for quite some time. But beyond and after that, the clock of political suspense will start ticking leading to usage of other campaign-cards by Modi and his team till votes are cast and results announced!  

Nilofar Suhrawardy is a senior journalist and writer with specialization in communication studies and nuclear diplomacy. She has come out with several books. These include:– Modi’s Victory, A Lesson for the Congress…? (2019); Arab Spring, Not Just a Mirage! (2019), Image and Substance, Modi’s First Year in Office (2015) and Ayodhya Without the Communal Stamp, In the Name of Indian Secularism (2006).    

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